HL Deb 07 April 1998 vol 588 cc614-7

2.53 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have considered the possibility of making those who can afford to do so pay the costs, which would otherwise fall on the taxpayer, of serving a sentence in one of Her Majesty's prisons.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, most prisoners come into prison with few personal assets and earn only pocket money—on average £7 a week—while there. Most who work outside the prison for real wages, as part of a resettlement regime, are charged for board and lodging. In some cases, they also pay contributions to other causes, such as victim support charities. Furthermore, a court may impose a fine in addition to imprisonment and make a confiscation order for certain crimes.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but it does not address the Question that I asked. Given that there is a shortage of resources and that in general it is necessary to give taxpayers' money to people who need it rather than to those who do not, how can the Minister justify people who, by free choice, commit an act which necessitates their confinement in one of Her Majesty's prisons expecting taxpayers to pay their hotel bill, which is some £25,000 a year? Is it not equitable that the people who have resources—I recognise that they are only a small proportion—should pay the cost of being kept in prison because they are there as a result of their own actions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, courts have had the power to order the confiscation of assets in respect of non-drug crime since as long ago as 1989. There is no reason why in appropriate cases courts should not confiscate what I agree are sometimes large sums of money which could go to the public funds and thereby be used for defraying the charges to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Henley

My Lords, will the Minister give a slightly more sympathetic answer? Will he agree that the proposal is a logical extension of the changes which we made when we introduced the powers to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of drug dealers and others who commit offences and make money out of them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot be more helpful. If a prisoner pays board and lodging it will go into the same fund as that which would benefit by the confiscation of assets in the way I have described. It is a matter for the court in each particular case; but I would have thought that there was a strong case to be made for confiscating substantial assets for public purposes.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report published about two weeks ago about a prisoner who, with the use of his mobile telephone, was earning a large salary? Is that not totally unacceptable and should not the salary have gone towards his upkeep?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of the total number of people in prison, only 227 are engaged in work of the kind described by the noble Lord. The prisoner in question is at Wealstun Prison. He was convicted of conspiracy to defraud Barclays Bank—and I do not put that forward as mitigation. He is earning a salary as a business procurement consultant. Contrary to some reports, he was not using a mobile telephone and he did not have a BMW. He pays £24 a week towards board and lodging and 10 per cent. of his earnings to Victim Support. The remainder is being kept for his release; but if his family is making a claim on public funds, the sum which he is earning will be taken into account.

I accept that that is an unusual case because the prisoner was earning £30,000 a year. However, thought is being given as to whether a proportion of similar sums ought not to be used in the way described. He will not be earning £30,000 a year for much longer because he will be out on 30th April.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, how many prisoners pay towards their accommodation and what percentage is that of the total prison population?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I have indicated, the average prison earnings are only £7 a week. Only 227 prisoners work outside and therefore the opportunities for deductions to be made towards board and lodging are very limited.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, do the assets which are occasionally confiscated go into a fund to which the Prison Service have access or do they go directly to the Treasury?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, they go to the Consolidated Fund.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has just indicated that the Minister knows all the answers to every question with which we agree—can he tell me whether the Scottish parliament will be able to take on board the idea of my noble friend Lord Marlesford?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not see any reason at all why the Scottish parliament should not pay the most careful attention to anything that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, says. I am sure it will. In fact, in the earlier months, I am sure it will discuss little else. Added to which, it may be that north of the Border they will have an even keener eye to economy. I am also able to deal with any questions about Royal Commissions in Wales.

Lord Renton

My Lords, what about young offenders? Does it not cost more to keep young offenders in the modern institutions which have replaced Borstal than to send a boy to a good public school like, for example, Eton? Would it not be fair to get the parents of the young offenders to make a contribution towards their education?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, an enormous number of young offenders have no parents who care for them and when they do have parents who are interested in them, very often those parents are in the lowest section of our community in terms of earning power and wealth. The average cost per prisoner place in 1996ߝ97—I stress this is average—was £24,271. Some of your Lordships may be able to draw a relationship between that and the fees at Eton; but, alas! I am not.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, bed and breakfast establishments pay tax to the Government which they recoup from their visitors. Could there not be some similar arrangement for those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot see immediately the virtue of such a scheme.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister because I believe that we have made quite a lot of progress on this Question. Following on the general tenor of this matter, will he see whether administrative arrangements can be made so that it becomes fairly standard and people expect, if they can afford it, to pay the cost of serving a sentence in prison? That might he quite a useful deterrent for some. Of course, I recognise that the great majority will not be in a position to pay anything. But it should become standard administrative procedure, and not a matter of the court ordering it, if necessary with legislation, to enable it to happen.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the trouble is that the administrative procedures tend to be cumbersome, counterproductive and do not produce as much revenue as is directly available if the courts exercise their full powers. The noble Lord is quite right that it would require primary legislation. This Government have such an admirably full programme of legislation pencilled in for the next Session that it looks unlikely that the noble Lord's idea could be given effect.